Tan France never wanted to be a role model. ‘I just wanted to show people a different version of what they assume South Asians or Pakistanis are - or gay people are or immigrants’ he says.
Purveyor of the French tuck, Tan’s relatability comes from his ability to emotionally connect with the ‘heroes’ of the Netflix show in a compassionate but straight-talking way, drawing on his own experiences to help facilitate transformations that go beyond wardrobe overhauls.
Growing up in South Yorkshire as a Pakistani wasn’t without its challenges. Being a person of colour and gay meant Tan’s earlier years were often fraught with racial targeting and homophobia, which he details extensively in his biography, Naturally Tan.
In some of the more moving passages, he talks about how this affected him and how he learned to hide away any trait that might give away his sexuality because he was ‘too busy trying to not make my ethnicity such a big issue. I didn’t need a fucking double whammy in my life.’
I'm not willing to change just because somebody else finds that uncomfortable.
Later, as a teenager, some close friends found out about a college relationship and began to spread rumours about his sexuality in his small, South Asian community and France ‘was essentially dragged out of the closet’ and decided to leave his home town. ‘It was a very tough reminder that this is not gonna be an easy road,’ he says.
‘[But] I think it prepared me for the job that I have now. When I was a kid I realised very early on that being aggressive back wasn't gonna solve the problem. I realised that just being calm and being polite and showing them a version of my people that they'd probably never seen before was the only way to win them over.’
While it’s easy to look back on Tan’s childhood and teenage experiences as harrowing, Naturally Tan details some charming and more upbeat memories too.
‘When my dad learned that my cousin had been given a Barbie house and a Barbie doll, the following week I had a bigger Barbie house, with a number of Barbie dolls. No one saw it as peculiar, which looking back, just shows how oblivious we all were to Western culture and how that would have been considered out-of-the-norm for most sons. I, however, was over the freaking moon.’
A creative child, Tan spent his childhood and teenage years immersed in hobbies. His love of clothes and fashion was something he experimented with from an early age, and it all began in his grandparent’s clothing factory.
‘I was always changing my clothes, from a very, very early age,’ he says. ‘Even before I started in the factory, I would always experiment with how I wanted to present myself to the world, or to my family in particular’.
After a series of hilarious and sometimes disastrous jobs in his teenage years and into his twenties (some lasting no more than a few hours), Tan’s love of fashion eventually steered him towards starting his own label, before being approached by a talent manager who asked him to interview for a role on Queer Eye.
He says he went into the casting session ‘with one agenda only - to make friends.’ It paid off and the producer loved him: ‘I think that was the main reason I got the job.’
Did he expect the show to become such a sensation? ‘Never in a million years’, he says. ‘The original show was so big and I really did think that lightning can't strike twice, it's impossible for this to be as big as the first show, and so I thought, "Okay this is going to be cute, for the girls and the gays"’.
I haven't seen a person that represents all that I represent and therefore the story hasn't been told.
Queer Eye was, of course, a runaway success. Fans fell in love with the five hosts, and it won three Emmys in 2018. A new-to-fame Tan was shocked to even be nominated: ‘I was like, "Oh that is so cute, but obviously it's not gonna win, we're a reality show, they don't win Emmys and we're a reboot - and a reboot has never won an Emmy"’.
He recalls the moment he found out. ‘I cried my heart out because I was so blown away and it was so unexpected. I would never for a moment think that I would ever be in a position to win an Emmy. I'd watch this ceremony in the UK when I was younger and it was just all fantasy, I never dreamt that this could be my life.’
When asked about his book, Tan is open about how a lack of representation has influenced this decision to share his life beyond the screen. He is one of the only ‘out’ gay South Asian men on western television: ‘I have a story to tell that is unique’ he says, ‘I've never heard this story before, especially not in the mainstream; I haven't seen a person that represents all that I represent and therefore the story hasn't been told.’
‘People believe that they understand what my life is about, because they get a snapshot of it on the show that I am on,’ he continues. ‘But there is not enough show to be able to really articulate who I am.’
Among the poignant anecdotes that tell Tan’s origin story, Naturally Tan is also filled with his trademark kind-but-firm fashion advice, including tips on how to replicate his illustrious hairstyle:
‘Nobody is going to accuse you of being homosexual just because you own a blow dryer. It will make a huge difference to your appearance. And if they do ask if you’re gay, after seeing your beautifully turned out coif, smile and thank them, because someone assuming you are gay is usually their way of saying you are so darn stylish that you must have heightened powers. Own it bitch, stop being so offended.’
Naturally Tan by Tan France is out now. Interview by Donna Mackay